I admit, I was a little nervous about going to Puerto Rico.
Wasn’t it too … American?
But after my Spanish language classes prepping me for stints in Mexico, with all its learning curves and beautiful cultural differences, I was worried about how Puerto Rico could ever compete. “Oh, you won’t need Spanish there,” people told me. I’d heard about the commercialization of San Juan and was even warned to pass it altogether. These warnings bothered me when it came time to plan for the trip; I didn’t want the United States in the middle of the Caribbean/Atlantic. I wanted another country; I wanted to speak Spanish and to be confused; I wanted the dumbfounding and rewarding experiences of Mexico under another country’s name.
And I did get that. Puerto Rico is similar to the United States in that you can throw a rock and hit seven Walgreens and a few shopping malls and a Dunkin Donuts, even. Creature comforts are there, which was odd at first, and then I remembered how, at one point in Mexico, I daydreamed about walking through the immaculate aisles of a Target. After being sequestered on a small island with only a few stores to procure wares, I was ravenous to peruse products, to run my hands across cotton sheets, to push a plastic cart around and buy crap for the sake of buying crap.
So, no, some parts of Puerto Rico are not as exotic or as difficult to adjust to as Mexico, but I did need my Spanish! Not everyone speaks English (and thank Jehoshaphat for that!)! The food is amazing! The people are, too!
Don’t listen to the naysayers: Puerto Rico is very much it’s own country.
And I loved it.
I arrived in early June with Stacy and my poet soul sister and collaborista, Anne Champion. Our agenda was simple: have fun, befriend strangers, practice Spanish (mine), eat mofongo, relax, go crazy, and write a book (with Anne). We would accomplish all, and more.
We’d spend three nights in San Juan and four in Rincon, the surfing village on the island’s western coast. We found our accommodations via Airbnb.com and Homeaway.com.
First up, San Juan, where we checked into our condo in the colorful, gay-friendly, and happening neighborhood of Condado. No time to rest, however — Stacy’s attorney friend scooped us up for a late lunch at Kasalta, a bakery and sandwich shop that received a visit from Barack Obama in 2011. The bakery now features huge homages to him.
I ordered a delicious cubano and a slice of pastel de tres leches. My favorite.
Let’s face it: My reputation precedes me. After nearly being thrown in a Mexican jail, I still hadn’t learned my lesson. Law-breaking is an essential part of any vacation, if you ask me. But only if you can get away with it!
So she filled us in on matters of parking, never trusting the police (no surprise there) and the various scams they pull, areas to watch out for, and more.
Would we listen? Sometimes.
After relaxing for a while and picking up some Medalla from the local grocery store, we got ready for our mofongo-seeking night.
Mofongo is mashed (fried?) plantains stuffed with meat. The foods of Latin America are just far superior than anything here. I could live on pupusas and tacos and mangoes and batidas. After stuffing ourselves, we all remarked how we could eat this food all day, everyday. I’ve just now found an authentic Yucatan-style taqueria in Boston.
Now, someone lead me to the mofongo!
Tips for staying in San Juan:
- We really enjoyed Condado, right on Ashford Ave., the so-called Rodeo Drive of Puerto Rico. Shopping was great, lots of one-offs you won’t find anywhere else.
- Find mofongo at all costs! It’s so worth it.
- Drink Medalla, the undisputed king of all summery warm weather beers. This stuff goes down like water. I’m hooked and can’t find it anywhere.
- Walk around! If you’re in a hotel, get out there and meet people. Meander into bars and restaurants — San Juan is teeming with options.
- Rent a car. San Juan’s traffic is notorious and headache-inducing, but you’ll want to get out of the city sooner or later for the nearby Bioluminescent Bay or El Yunque rainforest.
- The off-season (roughly late spring through summer) is less crowded than the wintry months. But it’s still crowded! I can’t imagine traffic in San Juan on a Friday night in December. Bring your cyanide pills!!
After dinner, we spent out first night recuperating from a day’s travel looking out at the city from the caged-in porch of our Condado condo, full from mofongo, refreshed from Medalla, hair humidity-struck, but we were drunk and delirious and in Puerto Rico.
It was just the first night. We had no idea of the hijinks to come.
On a tangled northern corridor of Cozumel, you can slip a boatman $200 pesos to motor you to your own private island … your island of passion!
I swear that’s really the name: Isla de Pasión. During the weekday, Passion Island is overrun with tourists and cruise shippers who’ve overpaid fancy tours to be carried alongside drunk strangers to this wild, tucked away world. But on the weekends, Isla de Pasión is a local’s secret. (Traveler’s tip: Go on a Sunday, when there’s no cruise ships in port.)
Getting to the island involves a bit of struggle, but it’s worth it. You’ll navigate seemingly endless gravel roads teeming with potholes. Mexican potholes. Kill-your-tires potholes. And in the middle of nowhere, with shoddy cell reception, you’ll want to go slow or you’ll be camping out in the jungle until morning’s first turistas come claim you.
But the inconvenience, the tinge of danger, slows you down. And on my jungle ride to Isla de Pasión, there was surprisingly good radio reception, and so I basked in the schmaltzy 80s jams I so love. Hungry eyes, anyone?
Cozumel is largely jungle, though you wouldn’t know it unless you’re looking down at the island from an airplane. But the path to Passion Island is a thick maze of gnarled brush. I wondered aloud if trekking through the wilderness might turn up some long lost Maya artifacts; Cozumel was one of the Maya’s most sacred pilgrimage sites, after all. But once at the water’s edge, one thing I wasn’t expecting was the sudden arrival of this critter, the Cozumel raccoon, also known as the pygmy raccoon, or Procyon pygmaeus. They’re endemic to the island and critically endangered by the island’s development, and just about the cutest thing ever.
Though nocturnal, this guy just couldn’t refuse my daylight photoshoot.
Boatman lounge around the docks in the heat, waiting for a fare. Once we settled on a price, we set forth into the dizzying afternoon for about a 10-minute ride, slowly pulling in to the isle’s beautiful clear green bay and driftwood-speckled shore. The boatman would return for me in, oh, about three hours.
Other than a family barbecuing in the distance, the island was totally deserted. Growing up, one of my favorite films was the 1960 classic Swiss Family Robinson. Watching this movie and reading books like The Boxcar Children — which features orphaned kids looking out for themselves in abandoned train cars — I desperately dreamed of being cast away, living on a remote island. Walking the shore, I felt like I was fulfilling some of these younger dreams.
Checklist for Passion Island:
1. Sheet, or large picnic blanket
2. Oxxo cooler full of beer or white wine
3. Snacks, cheeses, and miscellaneous goodies from Guido’s Tienda
4. A hot Sexican to oil you up (duh)
What is it about Mexico?
Disaster of some sort is to always be expected, but magical wonderment seems to trail me whenever I’m there. Case in point: I had a premonition about renting a car in Cozumel. The premonition told me that something was going to go down; yet my feelings weren’t entirely too grave to halt my plans, so I pressed forward with the rental arrangements.
The man at the rental agency zipped up in my shiny automatic car: “Perfect for a woman,” he joked. I rolled my eyes.
So I can’t drive stick. Sue me.
Off Stacy and I went, headed to the ecological park of Punta Sur, at the southernmost tip of the island. I’d been wanting to visit this park, which is home to Faro Celerain, one of the island’s three (I think) faros, or lighthouses. The man at the gate warned me sternly that the park closes at 4 p.m., and that we must be out in time, or else we’re locked in. I nodded, and headed down the long gravel stretch to the beach.
A few couples pranced on the beach, but mostly the place was deserted. Some haphazard docks drifted in the water for swimmers to latch onto, but the water was pretty shallow even far out. Perhaps it was the desolation, of the calm at hitting a milestone age — but while the landscape was without a doubt beautiful, it all felt a tad peculiar. Not the first time I’ve felt this eerie sensation in Mexico.
Punta Sur is now a turtle sanctuary, with a resonating stillness that’s far away in location and in contrast from the scooter-laden bustle of San Miguel and the cruise ship terminals of the northern coast. I don’t think I’ve visited any place like it in my multiple trips to the island.
But until I decided to tour the lighthouse, I couldn’t quite name what exactly I was feeling.
“This place is haunted, you know,” said a man behind me. “Call me Jorge,” he said, extending a hand. He wore an official parks workshirt and his English was flawless.
Haunted? My ears perked up. “Tell me more!”
“Oh, I couldn’t begin to tell you all the phenomenon that happens here,” he said, leading me around the site.
The official tour de Jorge had begun. There was no going back as he whisked us down the sandy aisles to the Tumba del Caracol, a Maya site dedicated to the ancient goddess IxChel, and there would be no hard answers about the so-called hauntings. Jorge was exhilarated to finally have an audience, and so we indulged him, listening to his colorful renditions of the park’s history and commissioning his energy to orchestrate a full-on Punta Sur photoshoot.
We were momentarily lost in our frothy fun, but the afternoon was winding. Echoes of the park ranger’s warnings about closing time hung overhead. So we bid Jorge adieu and pitstopped at the famous crocodile zone before making our way home.
But when we returned to the rental car — it was deadsville. Not a sound cranking from the motor. In the two-minute ride from the lighthouse to the crocodile zone, we’d unknowingly participated in the death of the rental car. And I realized that my premonition, it turns out, wasn’t a false alarm.
“Señor! Señor!” I called to the man I’d seen by the crocodile zone. He was waiting for the employee bus to come claim him. The park was closing. It was nearing 4 o’clock.
“Mi carro está muerto!”
He tried to turn the car over — nothing. He radioed the ranger that we were stuck. “Call the rental agency,” he told us, as the employee bus arrived, taking him with it, and leaving Stacy and I alone, to fend for ourselves.
The last thing the man had told us before leaving? “Be careful of the crocodiles; they come on shore at night to eat.”
Not to mention the wild boar in the area. Stacy and I took stock of what we had. Two iPhones with no reception in the wilderness; half a bottle of water; one Cosmopolitan magazine.
The anonymous rental car agency voice promised to rescue us in 30 minutes, but in Mexico time, 30 minutes sometimes means never.
The shadows grew long, and the sun began to fade. A norte was brewing, a cold wind that sweeps down from the north, and it was actually turning chilly. It sunk in that we were alone, truly alone.
We hightailed it out of the park and back toward town, just in time to hit La Hach for the sunset, which was glorious.
I may be a girl who can’t drive stick, but our Punta Sur stranding proved that my intuition is strong. And in Mexico, sometimes that’s the only tool you need.
On Tuesday I went on assignment for the Harvard Gazette to the Radcliffe Institute, where I heard MacArthur Award-winning journalist for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books Alma Guillermoprieto speak about her establishment of 72migrantes.com, an online Día de los Muertos-style altar to honor the lives of 72 migrant workers massacred in Mexico in the summer of 2010.
It was a dark day in Mexican history, but the altar brought together worldwide voices to commemorate the men and women who had risked their life along the treacherous train ride through Mexico known as la bestia — the beast.
The still-unsolved mass murder is believed to be connected to Mexico’s ongoing drug war, which has claimed more than 50,000 lives.
It was an honor to hear Alma Guillermoprieto speak, and it was moving to hear about what people will risk for even a chance at a better life. Visit the online altar.
The online altar has multiplied in many ways, Guillermoprieto said. It’s inspired theater productions, books, and, last year, on the first anniversary of the massacre, Radio UNAM, the station of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, presented a dramatic reading by famous actors of the site’s testimonials.
“Perhaps this is the main reason why the altar in its various manifestations has lasted so long,” said Guillermoprieto, “because they’re proof that Mexico still is a country where, against all the odds, acts of generosity and decency and solidarity and inspiration remain not only possible but constant, so the altar has become a place of encouragement, and not just of mourning.”
Read the full story here.
When I was in Mexico, a friend asked me what I was most afraid of, and I replied, with not even a breath in between: “Death.”
He looked at me like I was crazy. “Aren’t you afraid to die?” I asked.
No, he said, unblinkingly. “When it’s my time, it’s my time.”
I don’t share his attitude, but I love the idea of Día de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday dedicated to celebrating life by remembering those who’ve passed.
[Painting by Aunia Kuhn.]
In his classic treatise on Mexican life, The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz wrote:
The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his toys and his most steadfast love. True, there is perhaps as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain, or irony …The Mexican’s indifference toward death is fostered by his indifference toward life … It is natural, even desirable, to die, and the sooner the better. We kill because life — our own or another’s — is of no value. Life and death are inseparable, and when the former lacks meaning, the latter becomes equally meaningless. Mexican death is a mirror of Mexican life. And the Mexican shuts himself away and ignores both of them. Our contempt for death is not at odds with the cult we have made of it.
I don’t think we can prescribe one homogenous view of death to every citizen of Mexico, but it’s a romantic notion, and certainly applicable to some people.
When I started Loose Gringa this year, I felt spiritually dead. You’ve heard the story: I was in a depleted relationship; I was bored, spent, exhausted creatively and physically; I needed rejuvenation. I had been living like a dead person. Carefully, routinely. I was living in fear of change as though it were death itself. I was backed myself into a weird little nest of familiarity and comfort, and I suddenly wanted OUT.
So I ended my relationship and went to Mexico.
Admittedly, I took a while to loosen up. Even with all the tequila readily available.
Did I want to learn to scuba dive? Honestly, I didn’t. I was scared shitless. I didn’t want to die. And on my first dive, on the way down, mid-panic attack, I forced myself to continue to descend. And I completed two dives that day.
Did I want to climb the Coba pyramid? No. I had visions of falling and cracking my skull along its treacherous steps. But I forced myself to haul it to the top, and it was worth it.
Swimming with the whale sharks? My first thought when I get in the water was, “I know they’re not dangerous, but will I die somehow anyway?” You’re being ridiculous, Sarah, I said. I even grabbed one’s fin and went for a ride.
But sometimes, I felt as though death was even trailing me. There was the fieldworker I helped usher to (hopeful) safety after he’d been bitten by a viper! Remember?
So much death. Death at every turn.
Pushing myself was difficult, but eventually I learned to let go of trying to control the outcome of everything. The release came in a Coba cenote, when I volunteered to jump from a ledge into an icy blue underground pool without even a second look, or an appraisal of how high-up I was.
I threw myself into death.
And I survived.
Now, on the eve of my 30th birthday, I commemorate my near-death pre-Mexico life. Now, I can’t imagine going back to the static world I’d been living in. Being in Boston is hard enough! Now it’s hard for me to stay in one place. I am constantly looking up places I want to visit: Colombia, Australia, Thailand … checking airline prices and struggling to keep my imagination, and wallet, in check. Now I daydream about quitting my day job and just fleeing. Teaching English somewhere, scraping by, and loving it.
And I will!
Life has opened up, and these are all things I’m working toward. When the world refuses to end on Dec. 21, 2012, big changes are in store for Loose Gringa and 2013. I wish my dreams were happening now, and that I could update this blog everyday with tales from the road … but, patience, dear reader. Soon.
I return to Mexico on Nov. 3 — my 30th birthday! — with ever more hijinks to report, I’m sure. So I promise more Loose Gringa posts. That, I can deliver.
But tonight I’m going to Ole, in Cambridge, to drink tequila with friends and celebrate my coming of age and Día de los Muertos in one rich, margarita-drenched, mole fiesta.
By Saturday, this is where I’ll be. Home, sweet Cozumel. For one week, you’ll have me.
The gringa rides again!